Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Raconteur's Rhetoric

Holding their annual conference in a city well versed in tales of the tall variety appears to have rubbed off on the Conservatives. As the frontbenches jostle for the morning's headlines, evidence has given way to anecdote across the board – culminating, of course, in Theresa May getting in a pickle over a Bolivian cat. Speaking of Pickles, wheelie-bin champion Eric has been peddling his own brand of rubbish, in an often-bizarre speech bemoaning ''clipboard-wielding inspectors...nosing about your bathroom''. Never ones to let the truth get in the way of a good story, Tony Wilson, Frank Gallagher and all would no doubt approve. But is the rhetoric of the raconteur masking a deeper problem within the party?

Naturally, colouring fact with fiction is hardly new in politics. Neither is the use of eye-catching examples to translate the plodding language of policy to the electorate. May's exposure, however, is particularly dangerous to the government as it adds weight to a growing critique: that for all the heft of their presentation, the Conservatives remain worryingly light on detail. For Cameron in particular, this is risky territory. Having been described in the past as 'like a butterfly', a tendency to flutter a little too far away from the facts has, at times, undermined the Tory party leader's effectiveness at Prime Minister's Questions – and voters seem to have started taking notice. With public confidence key to the continuation of the cuts programme, appearing competent in the eyes of the electorate is absolutely crucial to Cameron as the Conservatives seek to keep their vote afloat through the choppy waters of deficit reduction. Each time a Minister flounders over the facts, the party's credibility credit decreases – along with Cameron's already-thin economic mandate.

All of this should make opposition an easy game for Ed Milliband. Safe in the knowledge that there will be no general election until 2015, and with no obligation to provide the levels of policy detail demanded of government, he and his team have the space to develop a wider argument – and the resources to skewer Cameron for his mistakes whenever they arrive. Cameron has no such luxury, a problem that commentators on both sides of the political divide have been quick to pick up on. So long as storytelling holds sway over serious discourse, the Conservatives will always be one fabrication away from crisis. Having bet the house on his personal credentials, the devil remains in the detail for the David Cameron.

Monday, 7 March 2011

U-Turn If You Want To...

For a party so keen to be associated with strength that their logo features a mighty oak, the current Conservatives are proving to be a surprisingly bendy batch of Blues. Following on from reversed decisions on school sports funding, NHS Direct and the Booktrust programme, Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman was next to crunch the gears as she announced the scrapping of widely criticised plans to privatise state-owned forests in the UK­, in the face of quite considerable public opposition. A sign of weakness to some, perhaps. But as Spelman's open and apologetic statement showed, the political U-turn does not need to mean political suicide – and Labour would do well to remember it.

Indeed, U-turns are fast becoming one of the coalition's stronger points. With all parties squabbling over who best represents the ‘new politics’, being seen to have listened to the public’s demands over policy is no bad thing – particularly when a couple of flagship concessions helpfully distracts attention from other, more fundamental, changes. By framing such strategic sidesteps as part of a wider public consultation, the government can present itself as mature and in tune with its people, who in turn feel empowered by their contribution to the debate. The accusation that greater care should be taken before such ill-thought policies are published is a strong one – and in part, the Coalition is simply hedging its bets here – but ultimately, this is government acting as most people would wish: respondent to public pressure, unafraid to accept its failings and happy to think again.

All of this makes being in opposition tricky. The temptation, particularly after 13 years in power, is to gloat over what they know to be difficult decisions. There are subtler points to be scored for Labour, however. The U-turns themselves should be praised; the ideology behind the original policies should not. Labour must make the case that every decision reversed by the government is an argument won by the opposition – while simultaneously criticising the direction of a political compass that could make such decisions in the first place. Winning the argument with the public is the key to any election. With that in mind, Labour must take heart with every Conservative climbdown and recognise that increasingly, it is they who are giving the public what they want – however the government tries to portray it.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Questionable Cuisine

Growing up an innocent young boy in the breadbasket of America, I firmly believed that there was no food in the world so repulsive that it would turn my stomach. I proudly carried this naiveté around with me for my entire childhood. Then, when I was eighteen, I went to a university in Britain and got an education in such matters.

My first morning in the dining hall, I sat slurping on some lukewarm porridge thinking, “well, it could be worse”, when a girl sat down beside me who had apparently passed through a barn and picked up some large nuggets of horse feed.

“What is that?” I said, spraying porridge.

“You’ve never had Weetabix?” she said, pouring milk on an oblong brick of cardboard and looking at me like I was the crazy one.

But Weetabix are merely bland (like ‘the Gobi desert on your tongue’ bland). And as much as I dislike them, I was dying for a bit of bland the first time I tasted British hard candy. There’s a reason they call that filth, ‘penny candy’: it’s so cheap and nasty that people can charge a penny for it and still make a healthy profit. I can’t recall which foul nuggets I tasted once, then vowed to never eat again, but a quick perusal of some British candy websites reveals these ‘classics’: Blackjacks (flavoured with aniseed); Jap Desserts (uncertain flavor, and vaguely racist); milk bottles (milk flavor); and let’s not forget that scottish favorite, Irn Bru Lollypops. It’s as if you hate your own children.

Still, candy is forgivable because Britain is also one of, if not the only place in the world where you can by Haribo sour mix -- the most heavenly assortment of sour gummy candy on earth. It makes my mouth water and my teeth hurt just thinking about it:

The ultimate sin against the culinary world, however, and the one dish that instilled in me the fear of God as well as the knowledge of my own mortality, is eels in jelly. I know many English people would argue that this is traditionally a poor man’s dish and it’s not representative of British cooking as a whole, but in response, I point to the American soul food tradition and simply state: there is no excuse. The eels themselves aren’t overly objectionable - it’s putting them in a jelly made of their own broth that is napalm on the tongue. In fact, a quick flip through an old Delia Smith cookbook reveals that the English have a long history of putting strange things into jelly. Why? Gelatin is a desert colloid that, on occasion, can be eaten mixed with vodka. That’s it. It’s union with anything besides fruit, and even that’s pushing it, is beyond blasphemous.

Britain’s combative relationship with good, or even edible, cuisine is mostly a relic of darker ages before the small island imported rich colonial cuisines to make itself something of a food capital in Europe. But if you ever find yourself believing that old culture equals good culture, go no further than the nearest pie and mash shop and drop yourself some gelatinous truth onto your tongue.


There's no point defending the indefensible: jellied eels are, I grant you, utterly vile - wobbling pots of putrid skin and bone, invented solely for the most sadistic of bulemia sufferers. Weetabix too - arid one minute, swampy the next, like a twisted game of culinary Catch-22. But for me, what excuses these artless abominations (and believe me, we've got plenty more of them) is that they are ours - we don't expect you to like them. What's more, having invented them, we don't plan on changing the recipes any time soon; they'll still be just as disgusting when the skies collapse. A slim heritage to maintain, you might think, but an honest one - and a stark contrast from the rip and run home economics of the United States.

Let me explain. Over here, we shovel gelatinous gloop down our throats fully aware of what is is and where it comes from. Were our slimy friends to slither they way across the pond, they would soon show up in coloured jelly, deboned,and restyled as 'Uncle Sam's Electric Eels in Jell-O With Added Omega 3!!! ', served in branded pots to commuters at 10 bucks a pop. Take coffee - a noble culinary tradition in Europe; a gargantuan rush hour fix in the States. On our side of the Atlantic, coffee is a small drink to be enjoyed slowly - on yours, its a pint of froth to be guzzled en route to the boardroom. A simple idea - roast coffee beans and water - debased and dressed up in a thousand ways for the highest commercial gain - that's what America brings to the table.

I could go on to list a thousand processed products as further examples, but your greatest crime against the culinary arts in undoubtably chocolate. When Kraft bought our beloved Cadbury's last year, there was uproar in the UK as people fretted that their glass and a half of milk would be replaced with the powdery nonsense that passes for American confectionary. But over here, our European friends wouldn't even recognise Cadbury's as chocolate in the first place - apparently it doesn't have enough cocoa in it. Given that the primary ingredients of Hersheys appear to be flavoured dust and animal fat, you'd be lucky to even get it through customs - it bears about as much resemblance to humble Aztec cocoa as it does to cosmetics. A Hersheys Kiss sounds like playground talk for ass-rimming - it's just a shame the 'chocolate' in those little brown wrappers doesn't taste as good. A jellied eel, for all its sins, is still a jellied eel- you know what you're going to get. It's hard to say the same for the pale imitations of tradition boosting corporate America's coffers, and boostings its subjects ever-expanding waistlines in the process.